A delight, but not ready for prime time

Cavitena Bistro server with an unusually large slice of pistachio cake. Photo by Richard Foss

The Caviteña Bistro is unlikely to be the place where Filipino food reaches a broad audience, but it’s a fine place to experience an underrated cuisine

Thai cuisine was once regarded as unlikely to succeed in America because it was too spicy, too sour, too strange to American tastes. The breakthrough came because a rock band promoter named Tommy Tang opened a restaurant that not only softened the more assertive flavors, but had a menu that carefully described the unfamiliar items. He hired a fluent staff  adept at making customers feel at ease and willing to experiment. Within two years, Thai restaurants were opening right and left, and it is now one of the more popular dining experiences in America.

I’ve been waiting for the same thing to happen to Filipino food, which has fewer barriers to acceptance. It’s not highly spicy and draws inspiration from Chinese and Mediterranean ideas, two cuisines that are also enduringly popular. It does have a few things to overcome – a preference for fatty pork and offal that is anathema to American ideas of healthy dining, a liking for sourness of tamarind and vinegar in soups and sauces, and a lot of dishes with very similar names that can make it hard to tell what you’re ordering. Many restaurants serving this cuisine are modest places that serve buffet-style, and explaining the intricacies of the cuisine is not a common skill. All of these could be overcome by a savvy restaurateur, but so far Filipino cuisine hasn’t found its Tommy Tang.

I heard about a modest place in Lomita called La Caviteña that had expanded both their premises and their menu and is now called Caviteña Bistro. The person who told me about it is an enthusiast for Filipino cuisine, and implied that this could be a breakthrough place in the local community. Having dined there, I’m sorry to say that it probably isn’t. That’s not to say that it isn’t an enjoyable dining experience, just that it doesn’t do some essential things that need to be done to reach a wider audience.

The environment is not a problem. It’s a pretty, modern space with an attractive display of desserts in a pastry case, and a small wine and beer bar in one corner. The welcome isn’t a problem either. Filipinos are famously hospitable and good at service with a smile. Unfortunately, the menu leaves a lot to be desired, such as explanations of virtually everything. If you don’t know the difference between binagoongan and dinakdakan, you’ll be spending a lot of time on your phone looking things up. (The former is pork cooked with savory shrimp paste, onion, garlic, and tomato, which most newcomers to the cuisine will probably enjoy. The latter is pig ears, face, liver, and other parts that are boiled and then grilled and tossed with mayonnaise, vinegar, and pepper. This is more appetizing than it will sound to most people, but probably not a dish that’s going to go big.)

It’s logical to seek help from your server, but unfortunately the ones here are of limited help. It’s not from lack of trying, because they seem eager to please, but they don’t know the culinary metaphors that experienced servers use as shortcuts. A server in a trattoria can explain that steak milanesa is like a schnitzel, but Italian, and if you know one item, you understand the other. A server with that skill here could explain that if you like carnitas, you’ll enjoy their crispy pata, and if Cantonese chicken-ginger soup sounds good, you might try the tinolang manok. It wouldn’t work with everything, since I don’t know another cuisine that has anything like dinakdakan, but it could start the process of making newcomers at home with the cuisine. The safest thing to do is to order one of the family platters, which serve from two to eight people and have some of the most popular dishes. We didn’t do that because we had someone with a food allergy at our table, and the platters included something she couldn’t have.

We started with an appetizer that has gone fairly mainstream, egg rolls called lumpia Shanghai. The reference to a Chinese city is a hint about a major influence in Filipino cuisine, the Chinese merchants who have been trading with the islands for centuries. An order of lumpia includes 20 of them, which sounds like a full meal, but these are tiny, one or two bites each. The pork and vegetable filling is dense, like a meatball wrapped in dough and fried, and they’re a crowd-pleaser.

The other items we tried reflected the fusion of native ideas, with not only Chinese traditions, but those of the Spanish and American colonial periods. We tried miki bihon (stir-fried noodles with chicken, sausage, and shrimp), chicken adobo, pritong bangus (crispy fried milkfish), tinolang manok (chicken-ginger soup), and the house special fried rice, which isn’t on the menu but is apparently always available. That house special fried rice is the same dish you’d find in any Chinese restaurant except for the pieces of the sweet filipino sausage called longanisa. Longanisa is the Filipino version of the Chinese sausage called lap chong, which is also found in stir fries, but the seasoning and texture are a bit different. We ordered the rice mainly as a mop for the sauces, but it was certainly good enough to be enjoyed on its own.

Entrees at Cavitena Bistro, from top left, Miki Bihon noodles, chicken adobo, and house special fried rice.

The miki bihon is a curious dish – egg and rice noodles stir-fried together with chicken, celery, carrots, and scallions, topped with a lemon in case you’d like a little citric element. It had me pondering who had the idea of mixing one noodle from Spain and one from China into a stir-fry. Did a thrifty cook somewhere have a little of each, and just throw them together? However it came about, the combination of textures makes this a little more interesting than the usual bowl of noodles. The lemon is a good idea too, because it adds a little bit of tartness that livens up the dish.

Tinolang manok is close to its Southern Chinese roots, chicken with bok choy, and chayote squash in a very rich, slightly oily chicken broth with lots of ginger. That ginger is in big pieces in the bottom of the bowl, and if you bite into one unexpectedly it’s a blast of flavor. Some people do chew  ginger, but I find it a little much, and leave the pieces on the plate by the bowl. They join the chicken bones – the chicken in this soup still has skin and bones attached, which improves the flavor but means you’re going to get a bit messy when eating it. Order it anyway and have napkins at hand, because it’s worth it. The only thing I’d change is that the bok choy and squash are in very large pieces, and would be better if cut smaller.

While those two dishes emphasize the Asian roots of Filipino food, the other two have Spanish elements. Adobo is a sauce based on vinegar, black pepper, sugar, and garlic. A long marinade in that mix makes meat tender and tangy. The version here is excellent, though you should know that there are whole peppercorns hiding in that sauce. They’re relatively soft and mild because they’ve been stewed for a long time, and if you don’t like pepper they’re easy to avoid.

The marinated whole bangus fish at Cavitena Bistro. Photo by Richard Foss

The bangus, otherwise known as milkfish, is available pritong (fried) or inihaw (grilled). We got the fried version, fileted and marinated in vinegar with a little sugar to give a fruity overtone. If you like fried fish, it’s highly recommended.

Caviteña Bistro is unusual among local Filipino restaurants in offering beer and wine, though their selection is limited. The Josh Sauvignon Blanc is well chosen for seafood and chicken items, while the Woodbridge Cabernet is less appropriate for this cuisine. A good Pinot Noir or Grenache would work better, but it’s nice that they’re trying.

Filipino desserts are offered, but very sweet, including Halo-Halo, the traditional shaved ice topped with fruit, candies, sweet beans, ice cream, and coconut. So are cheesecake and an unusual pistachio cake. Though the texture of the cake was a little crumbly, it was a nice finish to the meal. The odd thing about this item is the restaurant’s decision to serve this only by the quarter-cake instead of a slice. If you’re dining alone and order a dessert you’d better like big desserts, because you just ordered one.

Cavitena Bistro shaved ice, topped with fruit, candies, sweet beans, ice cream, and coconut. Photo by Tony LaBruno (TonyLaBruno.com

Entertainment of some sort is scheduled most evenings, often karaoke but sometimes performers. Karaoke is extremely popular in Filipino communities, and many of them are very good singers. The main repertoire is sappy and sentimental love songs and oldies. If you enjoy this genre you’ll find this place adorable. The person who runs the show here was surprised that nobody at our table could be convinced to join in, because nearly every other customer took a turn with the mic at least once.

The prices at Caviteña Bistro are moderate for the amount of food you get, and it’s almost inevitable that you’ll over-order on your first visit. I advise you round up some adventurous friends, have your phones at the ready when you survey the menu, and go have fun. This experience isn’t for everybody, but it’s a window into a community and culture that have been part of our metropolis for over a century.

Caviteña Bistro is at 1931 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., in Lomita. Opens 8 a.m. daily. Closes 8 p.m. Mon. — Thurs.,, midnight Fri. — Sat., 10 p.m. Sun. Parking lot, wheelchair access good. Volume level moderate when no karaoke, acceptably loud when in progress. No online menu. (310) 539-2411. Pen


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